Escaping the walled garden of connected TV
One trend on display at last week's Consumer Electronics Show was the gradual expansion in online content available on connected TVs. Major set manufacturers continue to confine their sets to a walled garden of sites and apps that they have approved, but the turf is expanding and the barriers to entry are dropping. For example, manufacturers are making application development kits widely available, instead of just providing them to selected software companies.
Meanwhile, upstarts continued to announce products or technologies designed to bring the entire unfiltered Web to the TV screen. Two particularly clever ones came from Orb and Snapstick.
The former recently started selling a $99 device, called Orb TV, that enables people to stream shows from Hulu and other websites to their TV sets, circumventing the problems that have stopped the free version of Hulu from being displayed by the Boxee box and similar set-tops.
Its follow-up, which was announced at CES, is a $19.95 disc that in effect turns any Blu-ray player with BD Live functionality (including those in a PlayStation 3) into an Orb TV device. Like the Orb TV, the Orb BR software relies on a smart phone or a laptop to act as the remote control. Unlike the Orb TV, though, it's capable of delivering video to the TV screen in high definition.
(I can't resist noting how entrepreneurs keep coming up with uses for BD Live functionality that Hollywood studios and consumer electronics companies didn't have in mind when they were drawing up the standard. But then, that's the beauty of standards.)
Snapstick doesn't have actual products yet, just SplitMedia technology that it demonstrated and a deal it announced with D-Link to conduct a trial of SplitMedia in an undisclosed product this year. Here's how it works: Users select a video to watch by browsing the Web on a mobile phone, tablet or laptop running Snapstick's software. Then, with a shake of the phone or a swipe on their computer, they can send what they're watching wirelessly to a Snapstick-equipped set-top box connected to the TV set.
Bob Patterson, a spokesman for Snapstick, said users could send the video to multiple screens simultaneously, provided they were all connected to a set-top running Snapstick's software, and all were logged in to the same account. One advantage of the software, he said, is that it doesn't rely on the smart phone or laptop to stream content from the Web. Once a video is snapped to the TV, the phone or laptop is free to be used for something else -- say, sending snarky tweets about what you're watching.
The show also featured a number of companies that simply make it easier to connect a computer to a digital TV set, essentially turning the TV into a big computer monitor. For example, iGugu's $99 InterneTV consists of cables to connect the PC to the TV and a remote control with a QWERTY keyboard that can be operated with one hand. And Veebeam's products ($99 and $139 for standard definition and high definition, respectively) consist of a USB dongle that beams video from a PC or laptop to a set-top box plugged into an HDTV.
-- Jon Healey